I was a musical theater kid growing up, listening to shows until I knew them by heart, staring at tiny production photos in the booklet that came nestled between the two CDs in original cast recordings. It wasn’t just the music for me — the stories, the crafting of lyrics, the ambition of the set and costume designs, the high conceptual abstractions that powered the very real emotions of the characters.
Like all such kids, I went through a Phantom of the Opera phase. That was followed by a Les Misérables phase which, if I’m honest, I’ve never quite left. These are good shows, maybe even great ones, but eventually I found the works of Stephen Sondheim, and everything else just seemed like straw. Every medium has its top echelon of creators, but among musicals, there is SONDHEIM and then there is everyone else.
If you’ve never had the experience of learning, rehearsing, and performing a piece of music, you may not understand how utterly difficult Sondheim’s work is for the people playing and singing it. He uses counterintuitive harmonies and phrasing that doesn’t quite go where you expect it to. In the process of learning his music, you also have to unlearn what you know from other music. The melodies can be deceptive — you expect them to go in one direction, which would sound just fine, but they twist instead into shapes that are surprising and transcendent. The voices dance around the instruments in ways that require intense focus from both parties, but sound simple to an audience. Performing Sondheim music is one of the most difficult things an artist can do.
It isn’t just the difficulty or sheer beauty that brings people back, though. He was also one of the most gifted lyricists who ever wrote for the stage. His words are precise, like those of a poet, but he pushed back against that label because a poet has the luxury of letting words sit on a page for people to absorb at their own pace. When listening to a song, however, the words keep going whether you comprehend them or not, and he understood this cognitive reality at a profound level. His lyrics, often as complex as his music, run through your mind such that sometimes the emotion of one phrase only settles in while you’re hearing a different one… and he planned that, so they play off each other. His first big break was as the lyricist for West Side Story, an amazing feat by itself. It would have been the peak of my creative career to have written something that enduring.
He applied these superlative talents to the creation of worlds and characters so rich and ugly and wounded and beautiful that actors relish getting to inhabit them. You can hear the premise of Into the Woods (different characters from various fairy tales cross paths; antics ensue) and imagine what it will be. Then, you end up sobbing at the end of Act II when it becomes about understanding your parents as flawed human beings and the need for connection as a driver of personal growth. In theater and film, women are too often relegated to the ingenue or the crone with nothing in between, but Sondheim was particularly adept at writing women characters of middle or later age. The characters he wrote had lived life, experienced pain, and had a wry glint to their wit that made each one a gem, unique and gorgeous. His younger characters and his men are no less nuanced. The care he gave to all the people in his worlds reveals a deep love for humanity itself.
That’s ultimately what impressed me most of all. Many creators with less talent than Sondheim are ego-driven monsters and complete nightmares to work with. But he was known as a wonderful collaborator, generous with his creativity and patient with his critique. People loved working with him; they trusted him, and were willing to be vulnerable with him. In any creative process there are intense disagreements, but he didn’t leave a trail of resentful former collaborators like so many others did. That gentleness did not imply a lack of standards, though; he had a tenacious perfectionism, tempered with an understanding that the imperfections are often where the beauty lies. He was a notoriously private and even solitary person; you sensed that his own impossibly high standards for himself drove his creations, but he never became a tyrant, even as he drew out his collaborators’ best work.
Seeing that collaboration in action almost feels like a blessing. Whenever Sondheim comes up in a conversation, I inevitably reference these two clips that I adore from a master class he held at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, teaching “Send in the Clowns” to a voice student and then an acting student. Each is only a few minutes long and both are wondrous.
Here we’re given a rare glimpse of Sondheim as a teacher. You see his high expectations, but also his humility as he admits the problems with his own composition. He is direct with his critique, but also encouraging and patient. He wants them to do well, but he also wants their own specific gifts to blossom. He is open to surprises. Listen to how he simply says, “so do it,” telling the acting student to overcome the musical difficulties. He lets her know that he believes in her talents and trusts that she can do what he’s asking. It’s not an order, but an invitation to bring out what he sees. It’s the heart of what it means to work together towards something beautiful.
When news came of Sondheim’s death a few days ago, my Twitter feed filled up with laments of my fellow former theater kids. He was 91 when he passed away, so it wasn’t a surprise, but the gaping wound that people felt was palpable even across the screen. One friend talked about singing his music at her mother’s funeral. Another mentioned how it helped him understand his personal worth enough to leave an abusive relationship. The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner summed up what a lot of us were feeling:
Sondheim knew me so well, which is pretty wild for a guy I never met
— Helen Rosner (@hels) November 26, 2021
In that collective outpouring of grief I reverted back to that lonely musical theater kid sitting on the floor of his bedroom, getting swept away by both the orchestrations and plot twists in Sweeney Todd or the stark emotional reality at the core of “Send in the Clowns” that I wouldn’t understand for another few decades. I would never understand music theory at anything but the most basic level, but I listened to the opening of Into the Woods over and over to try and understand how the intervals in “I wish to go to the festival” are so uniquely SONDHEIM that they may as well bear his signature. Not only did he make me want to be a better performer and a better writer, but he was able to reach through the speaker and make me feel like someone understood me and wanted me to persist.
Thank you, Mr. Sondheim. You changed the life of that lonely kid and brought untold richness to the adult that he became. Let his memory be a blessing.